The first thing to note about Norma Kamali’s new book is the title on the cover — I AM INVINCIBLE — and yes, those capital letters do matter. Nothing less could sum up the drive and vitality of the 75-year-old New York designer, a darling of the American fashion scene for more than five decades, a woman whose proto-athleisure designs have been worn by everyone from Bette Midler to Beyoncé. In more than 100 pages of uncompromising chunky font, Kamali tells her readers how to live a long, healthy and successful life, and she should know — she is planning to live until she’s 120. “YOU CAN FEEL BETTER AND BETTER WITH AGE,” she intones in her philosophy, naturally titled “NORMALIFE”. “GIRLS COMPETE, WOMEN EMPOWER.” And also, because it’s fashion: “WEAR A BIKINI IN THE WINTER WHILE COOKING.”
Obviously I was both thrilled and terrified at the prospect of talking to her. Yet when Kamali appears on our Zoom call from her New York home — with more monochrome capital-letter mantras printed on the wall behind her — she sounds rather fair and commonsense. Despite the flawless skin, daunting bangs and very fashy statement glasses, she seems almost relatable, in a loose black T-shirt of her own design and black leggings — not the NoHo Edna Mode from The Incredibles I was expecting at all. Although she is quite unblinking on some things. “Everybody is apprehensive about their age — how old are you?” she asks. Um, 37. She beams. “You see, asking everybody about their age makes them uncomfortable,” she says, but she’s not bothered at all. Which may be true, but I have a feeling my own pause is to do with the fact that I’ve realized I’m exactly half her age but look twice it.
She is planning to live until she’s 120.
Anyway, ever since she launched her own-name label in the 1970s, Kamali has been a part of the New York gratin, the recipient of a lifetime award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America, as well as a regular of Studio 54. A swimsuit she designed sits in the Smithsonian; her iconic sleeping bag coat, which she dreamed up on a camping trip in the mid-1970s, is still a best seller (Rihanna, Solange and André Leon Talley have all been seen in it — Talley has three on rotation).
It’s weird how forward-thinking Kamali seems now. She did designer sweatshirts in the 1980s, got into e-commerce in the 1990s, launched a wellness café in the Noughties (pre-Goop); she’s relentlessly ahead of the curve. The Kamali look is sporty and arty and flexible, and in 2021 it feels de rigueur. And business is still thriving, she tells me; she has managed to remain fiercely independent for decades, never needing to sell out to a big conglomerate, never paying people to wear her clothes; she told one journalist last year her business was “in that $25-50 million size zone”. This winter, savvy as ever, she started selling her sleeping bag coats at 50% off so that New Yorkers forced to eat outside in the cold because of Covid restrictions could snuggle up in one too. “I’m selling, like, 10,000 zillion,” she announces. “I just hired five new people.”
Love and Marriage
And yet I doubt that’s the reason so many of Kamali’s friends flock to her for advice. It’s surely to do with the fact that she looks insanely good for 75 (she barely wears makeup now and if she does it’s wildly organic, and doesn’t like to push plastic surgery — her own favored mode is “authenticity enhanced”); with the fact that she is getting married this year, after meeting her soulmate at a mere 65; and with the fact that for all the sensible advice she offers, the best she gives is the instruction to dance. Kamali has been to all the best clubs, from the Peppermint Lounge, the hottest spot of late 1950s New York, passing by the Speakeasy on Margaret Street, London, in the mid-1960s through to the legendary Studio 54 — she had special access to the Manhattan superclub in its 1970s heyday as she dated its co-founder Ian Schrager. She claims she “danced every day until 1980”, and even now she says she is desperate for restrictions to end “because I personally need to dance for at least 12 hours. I just … I need it. It’s got to happen!”
She claims she “danced every day until 1980.”
Kamali was born Norma Arraez, the daughter of a Basque father and a Lebanese mother, but is still a native New Yorker. She has dedicated her book to her mother, Estelle, who even back in the 1950s was extolling the virtues of herbs and plants and various proto-wellness things, which her daughter thought was cuckoo at the time. The young Norma wanted to be a painter, but her mother advised her to study fashion too, to make money. However, when Kamali graduated, she was appalled by the current trends. “It was Mad Men time,” she grimaces. “The corsets and the garter belts. I hated wearing it and I hated it.” So she got a job doing bookings for an airline and, benefiting from $29 return trips (yes!), started coming to swinging London. “My design style is very much like the British personality,” she muses. “There’s this sort of structure of normalcy, but then there’s this wacky element that’s eccentric — and that describes me and my clothes very easily.”
While all this was going on she met and married her first husband, Mohammed “Eddie” Kamali, at the age of 19. Though he was helpful at first, helping her set up her first business in 1967, things fell apart through her twenties; as she details in the book, his cheating, including with one of their shop assistants, had a fair amount to do with it. She eventually bolted with $98 to her name and set up a new brand on her own. And it was in this phase that she met Schrager, who she twinklingly dubs one of her “experiences”. (Another one, later, would be a hot Spanish businessman with whom she set up an olive oil venture — “an all-encompassing experience of mind, body and soul” is how she puts it in the book.) She never had children: “I was so independent, the reality was that I didn’t think about having children very much,” she writes.
If Kamali seems very commonsense in person — and indeed a lot of her book is just good common sense, advising you to sleep well, exercise regularly and cut out sugar — a small part of her is away with the stars. After all it was an astrologer who told her, in her twenties, that she would only meet her soulmate at 65. At the time she thought the woman was crazy. And yet in her sixties she was introduced to the high-powered lawyer Marty Edelman by, of all people, Schrager, who is still a close friend. She turns her computer around to show me Edelman’s desk opposite hers in a large minimalist white office; he also has mantras printed behind him on his wall (and a Peloton). Why is he her soulmate? They have the same “moral compass”, she thinks, but also “the other thing is we’re both extremely committed to our work”.
“I spent so many relationships trying to pretend that I’m, like, the girlfriend-housewife or something,” she grimaces. “I was pretending I could be this other person — and I’m the boss of a company!” she laughs. “You know, I’m female, I’m feminine, but I’m also running a company. I can’t be a passive, you know, ‘no opinion about anything’ kind of person.” Edelman proposed on her 75th birthday last year; they plan to marry in June and, unsurprisingly, there is just one thing that’s certain: “It’ll be just dance for as many hours as each of you can.”
As for work, obviously I don’t even ask about retirement — the concept seems laughable. Her most recent pre-fall collection presented a staggering 108 looks; the collection before presented unisex clothes with the forward-thinking “see now, buy now” model. She thinks the current crisis is going to make itself felt for a long time: “This is imprinted on our brains now.” In terms of fashion she thinks people are going to shop more sustainably, and also, she laughs, holding up her own comfy black slippers, it’ll be a while before we get back into “real shoes”. She has a closet full of gorgeous ones, she says, but they’ve become utterly pointless. “They’re like little pets,” she says. “I love them and I collect them and I take good care of them. I visit them, but I’m not putting them on my feet.”
Does she really plan to live to 120? Well, yes, she says — she has done a lot of research and is doing everything she can to make it happen, but as usual she makes it sound kind of normal. “It’s my way of keeping me on track,” she shrugs. “But there’s a good chance it may be 119.” Oh well, if you’re going to be negative about it …
I Am Invincible, by Norma Kamali, is available on Amazon
Louis Wise is a freelance journalist covering celebrity culture